EHN awarded in national journalism contest

Doug Struck       

March 15, 2013

Environmental Health News has won Honorable Mention in a national journalism competition for its 10-part series investigating environmental justice problems in communities across the country.

The Oakes Awards, one of the most prestigious awards in environmental journalism, are bestowed by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Tomas Ovalle

For its series entitled Pollution, Poverty, People of Color, EHN dispatched reporters to seven cities to profile the wide variety of environmental health threats facing low-income communities of color. Thirty years after the emergence of the environmental justice movement with a protest in North Carolina, poor communities with large African American, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American populations still are exposed to a disproportionate burden of industrial pollutants.

EHN, which is foundation-funded, competed against top newspapers, magazines and other major media outlets for the Oakes Award. There were no special categories based on the size of the publication.

The Chicago Tribune placed first with Playing with Fire, a series exposing deceptive practices by the chemical industry related to flame retardants that are building up in the bodies of people and wildlife around the world. In addition, the Tribune won the Scripps-Howard Public Service Reporting Award, announced Thursday. USA Today and Inside Climate News also received Honorable Mentions from the Oakes Awards.

The EHN series, overseen by Editor in Chief Marla Cone, was a collaboration by eight reporters, including EHN staff writers Brett Israel and Brian Bienkowski. A strength of Pollution, Poverty, People of Color was that it combined analysis of scientific data with compelling storytelling that brought communities to life for readers. The stories documented high rates of asthma, diabetes and other health threats.

"We're thrilled that EHN rose to the top tier of a growing list of Oakes applicants, including major newspapers. Surely there's turmoil in the modern news media, but quality journalism is far from dead, and nonprofits are producing world-class work," said EHN Publisher Peter Dykstra.

Two powerful pieces by veteran, ex-newspaper journalists Jane Kay and Cheryl Katz led off the 10 days of the series by profiling the beleaguered community of Richmond, Calif., which is encircled by five oil refineries, three chemical plants, a large port and scores of hazardous waste facilities.

Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif.
Robert Durell

Kay and Katz wrote, "From the house where he was born, Henry Clark can stand in his back yard and see plumes pouring out of one of the biggest oil refineries in the United States. As a child, he was fascinated by the factory on the hill, all lit up at night like the hellish twin of a fairy tale city. In the morning, he'd go out to play and find the leaves on the trees burned to a crisp...With all of the frequent explosions and fires that sent children fleeing schools, parks and a swimming pool within a mile of the refinery, 'we just hoped that nothing happened that would blow everybody up. People still wonder when the next big accident is going to happen,' Clark said."

Just two months after the series was published, a fiery explosion rocked Richmond’s Chevron refinery, sending about 15,000 people to hospitals to be treated for inhalation of fumes. Chevron faces at least $1 million in potential civil fines and a federal criminal investigation.

Also, as part of the series, Liza Gross profiled a poor farm worker community in California with no access to clean water. "The poorest people in the state, mostly Latinos in Central Valley farm towns, have the worst water," Gross wrote.

Israel profiled the poverty-stricken town of West Anniston, Alabama, which has an extraordinary rate of diabetes that scientists have linked to old industrial contamination from PCBs. "The Rev. Thomas Long doesn't have any neighbors on Montrose Avenue in Anniston, Ala.. Everyone is gone, abandoning the neighborhood after widespread chemical contamination was discovered there in the 1990s. Long didn't want to move; he had lived in the same house for all but one of his 64 years. Now he is stuck. Stuck on a street with no neighbors. Stuck with a property he's convinced is unclean. And stuck with diabetes," Israel wrote.

For its series, EHN dispatched reporters to seven cities to profile the wide variety of environmental health threats facing low-income communities of color.Bienkowski wrote about a Native American tribe in Michigan, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, that is battling a new mine, which poses a threat to the water that the tribe considers sacred. "Native Americans are even more vulnerable than other disadvantaged groups because of their reliance on natural resources for survival," Bienkowski wrote.

Lindsey Konkel, writing from Worcester, Mass., investigated how socioeconomic stress exacerbates the health effects of environmental pollution. "A growing body of research suggests that the chronic stressors of poverty may fundamentally alter the way the body reacts to pollutants, especially in young children," Konkel wrote.

Crystal Gammon wrote about an inner-city epidemic of asthma that threatens the lives of children in East St. Louis, and Douglas Struck revealed how climate change is leaving low-income communities like East Boston vulnerable. Katz also contributed a provocative question and answer session with two North Carolinians – one black, one white – who led a 1982 protest that gave birth to the national movement fighting environmental racism. The series also included opinion pieces by three experts.

Photography for the series was by photojournalists Robert Durell and Tomas Ovalle. Managing Editor Pauli Hayes was in charge of layouts.

EHN launched this project, which was published in June, because the environmental threats in these communities, and many others like them, are left mostly uncovered by their hometown newspapers and other media. EHN is continuing its occasional series with stories in more communities.

Founded in 2002, EHN aggregates the most interesting environmental news around the world every day, with free subscriptions to its daily newsletter.

Since Cone was hired from the Los Angeles Times in September, 2008, EHN has produced its own original journalism, with its mission centered on exposing issues left uncovered by other media.

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